Friday, February 28, 2014

Well blow me down.

16 hours spent in Koyuk waiting for the P.O. to open allowed ample opportunity to rest, socialize with the mushers and checkers, mend some gear, even time to get online and book a flight outta Nome.  This last is a critical detail: At Iditarod time all outgoing flights are full well in advance.  Sneaking onto one last-minute simply doesn't happen.

So I took a long look at the weather forecasts, made some educated guesses about what the trail might be like (based on what it had been like), gave myself what felt like a reasonable buffer in case something changed, then went ahead and booked a flight.

In an odd twist, First Class tickets cost less than coach.  What the hell I thought, I'm worth it...

Chores done I rolled back onto the ice and skirted the coastline heading west.  Getting over the Isaac's Point headland was work, punctuated by nearly getting creamed by a sledneck in a blind corner.  Before I got too riled up about our near-miss I realized that I'd probably been descending *at least* as fast as he'd been climbing, and as such deserved half the blame.

Nice to have such good trail conditions to cause 'problems' like that.

I poked my head into the Kwik River shelter cabin, found it a bit out of sorts, then spent ~30 minutes paying it forward.  I've been stuck here in ground blizzards and know how nice it is to find dry kindling and wood stacked inside, and the drift shoveled away from the door allowing easy access with numb fingers.  

Moments after leaving the cabin the trail changed course, heading more WSW, and with that change the wind had instantly filled in the trail tread.

At least it was a nice day for a walk.

Moses Point aka Old Elim.  Must be good fishing still.

As the afternoon wore on the wind increased.  The walking never got any harder, nor did the routefinding.  You just had to be patient and unwind the miles a step at a time.

At roughly dark thirty I reached a recently bladed road and was able to motor the last ~mile into Elim.  Hordes of kids greeted me, all outside playing and laughing in the twilight.

(Remember when kids played outside?!)

Although the volunteers at the Elim checkpoint were gracious and kind and funny, doing everything they could to entice me to stay the night there, I had a sense that the wind was only going to increase and as such I was going to need extra time to get to Nome.

So I wolfed some leftover pizza then excused myself for a few night miles.

The trail out of Elim vanished immediately, blown completely in since the last musher passed ~40 minutes before.  But it was well marked and I simply walked a few miles til the Walla Walla shelter cabin came into view in the wee hours.

Later I woke to pee, and the first thing my barely-open eyes focused on was the window.  

Figuring I could catch up on sleep in June, I chose to burn a few hours out under the influence of the aurora.

In the morning I woke to the jingling of dog harnesses, then breakfasted while learning from Mike.  He's mushing because he enjoys it, and lives in a place where it makes some sense, but he also uses it as a platform to advocate for sobriety.

Watching his dogs pull him out of sight was the first time my attention fully collected on the ripping ground blizzard outside the door.

The shot below was taken out the window of the cabin, looking up at Mount Kwiniuk several miles away.  That plume is a few miles long, and the taller tendrils at right are a few hundred feet high...

Having been in exactly this spot in exactly these conditions before, I had zero illusions about what awaited.  

As I collected gear and loaded the bike, I dressed myself not for the big climb up Little McKinley but instead for the 100+ mph winds that awaited near the top.    

Loading the bike in the lee of the cabin caused me to giggle with nervous anticipation: Even sheltered as I was the wind knocked me around with ease.

I went back inside for one last look around, and to have a little talk with myself.  13 years ago nearly to the day, I left this cabin and walked blithely up this hill into an ever worsening tempest, figuring when it started to get really bad I'd just layer up.

Things worsened so fast I never got the chance to do that, and found myself in a tenuous position--hypothermic and unable to move to get warm.  If I ever finish writing my damn book I'll share that story in detail.

I wondered if I'd learned anything from that experience?  Or in the ensuing decade+?  

The climb starts innocuously enough--you work away from the coast and slowly out of treeline.   Winds were less than 60mph here--I couldn't pedal through it (couldn't keep the bike on the trail) but walking was fine.

As I was leaving the last stand of spindly trees a gust caught me leaning, knocked me to the ground.  It pressed harder and harder on my back, squeezing me against the snow.  I waited 3, 5, 8 breaths for it to lull, then stood and levered the bike back up.  

Before I could resume motion a snowmachine appeared out of the drift, stopping inches from my front tire.  The rider opened his shield and leaned right up next to my ear, then shouted to be heard, "You're about to head into some really bad shit!"

I wondered how much worse it would get, but conversation was nigh-on impossible so I didn't ask for details.

I leaned over and grabbed his helmet, shouting back into his ear, "I know--but thanks for the warning."

His eyes got real wide and he shook his head slowly as I resumed pushing up.

Wind does the darnedest things with dogshit.

Once out of the trees it's go-time.  You can't stop to fiddle, pee, adjust, or eat, you just have to keep going.  The concept of 'trail' across the top of McKinley is different: Because the wind blows so often and with such force there is no loose snow left, merely a scoured surface not unlike styrofoam.  You do what you can to follow the markers that haven't blown away, but your course is dictated by the wind.  

About here I stopped trying to photogeek--my hands would be numb before I could get the camera unholstered.

I expected (and hoped) that as I topped out and started down I'd find some sort of protected hollow that I could pause and collect myself in.  That never happened.  In fact the wind just kept getting stronger and stronger, pushing the bike (with both brakes on) faster than I could run (looong loping strides) along with it.  Repeatedly I'd stumble and augur in, then lay still for a moment, letting my heart rate come down a bit but also pausing just long enough to convince myself that I still had some semblance of control of the situation.

I was as prepared as I knew how to be but things just kept escalating and there was no way out but to keep moving deeper into it.  I haven't been ragdolled like that since my college football player/neanderthal roommate tossed me around 20+ years ago.  Really memorable experiences, both of them.

About the time that my adrenal gland had been slapped empty I bottomed out onto Golovnin Bay, then fought the now-quartering wind for a few clicks into Golovin.  Knowing that there were friendlies in White Mountain I rolled right through town, wanting to make it ~18 more miles before shutting it down for the night.

I was less than 1 minute out of Golovin when I got knocked down the first time.  I stood and levered the bike up against the wind, started pushing again, got flattened again.  While attempting to lever the bike up after the third one, I heard a mechanical screaming and cringed--reflexively assuming I was about to get plowed by a snowmachine.  Instead it was an ATV, and the man driving it knew I was there.  He jumped off and shouted at me, "I don't think you should go.  It's gonna get worse the farther you get.  Come stay with us--my Mom just threw a pork chop in a pan for you."

I'll always wonder if he was genuinely concerned or just gambling on what a sucker I am for pig.